The election of a progressive justice to the Wisconsin State Supreme Court has broken a Republican stranglehold on the Badger State, possibly setting up the overturning of an 1849 law banning almost all abortions plus inviting a legal challenge to the most gerrymandered state legislative maps in the nation.
Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz defeated right wing rival Dan Kelly, a former justice appointed by Scott Walker, by a 170,000-vote margin in an election that drew more than 1.7 million voters and saw more than $45 million spent.
It was the most expensive judicial election in American history.
Kelly was a consultant to the Republican National Committee and state Republican Party during Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn results of the 2020 election, in which President Biden carried the Badger State by a 20,000-vote margin.
The Wisconsin victory by Protasiewicz creates a 4–3 progressive majority on the court, which is officially nonpartisan but has been controlled by conservatives since 2008. She will serve a ten-year term, lasting through the next presidential election as well as redistricting in the next decade.
The election saw a continuation of last year’s election trends, in which voters across the country rejected ultra MAGA Republican extremists and embraced pro-choice candidates. “Abortion cuts ice in Wisconsin,” emailed David Lawsky, a longtime Reuters political reporter now retired and living in nearby Chicago.
As well, the progressive trend among under-thirty voters was evident, particularly in Dane County, home to the University of Wisconsin. “Abortion rights and voting rights are too important for us to stand idly by, and young people will stop at nothing to protect the future we believe in,” Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, president of the national group NextGen, said in a statement.
Protasiewicz would not say now she would vote in specific cases but made no secret of her values.
She described the Wisconsin Legislature as “rigged” and “unfair,” adding: “Wisconsin has probably the most gerrymandered maps in the entire country.”
On abortion, she has been equally blunt: “My personal value is that a woman has a right to choose.” With the Supreme Court’s vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, there revived on the books an 1849 Wisconsin law banning almost all abortions.” The law was enacted seventy years before American women won the right to vote.
Wisconsin is an evenly divided state: Democratic presidential candidates have carried the state in every election since 1988, except for Trump’s narrow 2016 victory. The state was home to early twentieth century progressive Senator Robert LaFollette, but also to the 1950s red-baiter Senator Joseph McCarthy.
John F. Kennedy’s road to the White House began with his 1960 wins in New Hampshire and Wisconsin. President Lyndon Johnson announced in 1968 that he would not seek reelection, knowing he would likely lose the Wisconsin primary the following Tuesday to Vietnam War critic Senator Eugene McCarthy.
As recently as the end of the 2000s, Democrats had a trifecta in Wisconsin, with Governor Jim Doyle and Democratic legislative majorities in both chambers.
Yet, following the election of militant Republican Governor Scott Walker (Doyle’s successor) in the 2010 midterms, the state began shifting sharply to the right.
Walker and Republicans in the Legislature gutted the power of public employee unions. The state enacted a fire-at-will law. Ballot drop boxes were banned.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court later took up a Trump motion to disqualify 200,000 votes from Milwaukee and Dane Counties, both of which Joe Biden won big.
In the words of Jeffrey Mandell of Law Forward, a progressive legal group: ““Pretty much everything in Wisconsin flows from the gerrymandering.”
Democrats captured more than fifty-three percent of the vote for legislative candidates in one recent election, only to see Republicans hold more than sixty percent of seats. Voter analysis has shown the Republicans could hold the Wisconsin Legislature with as little as forty-four percent of the vote.
Six of eight U.S. House members from Wisconsin are Republicans.
A legal challenge to the gerrymander is expected to be filed on August 1st, the date when Justice-elect Protasiewicz takes office.
Abortion was the topic of about thirty percent of the winner’s television ads, heavily underwritten by the Wisconsin Democratic Party.
The message from one spot: “Judge Protasiewicz believes in women’s freedom to make their own decisions when it comes to abortion.”
The ultra MAGA movement has clearly played a role in loosening Republican dominance. Democratic Governor Tony Evers unseated Walker in 2018 and won reelection last year. But the Republican-run legislature stripped the governor and Attorney General Josh Kaul of many of their powers.
Kaul is working on a challenge to the 1849 abortion law.
The Republicans’ dominance was built on the so called “WOW” suburban counties around Milwaukee — Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington.
Republican Mitt Romney carried them by a nearly two-to-one margin in 2012. They were still going for Kelly last night, but by a much narrower margin.
Ex-Justice Kelly was not gracious in defeat.
He told supporters on election night: “I wish that I’d been able to concede to a worthy opponent, but I do not have a worthy opponent.” During the campaign, he decried “the rancid slanders that were launched against me.”
Three progressive Supreme Court justices showed up to celebrate at Protasiewicz’s victory party. “Today’s results mean two very important and special things,” she told the crowd. “First, it means that Wisconsin voters have made their voices heard. They have chosen to reject partisan extremism in this state. And second, it means our democracy will always prevail.”